Report: Why We Need the Climate Bill’s Building Code

buildinggenericA section spanning just 29 pages of the 1,428-page Waxman-Markey climate bill could have an outsized impact on energy use in the United States as it would require ambitious reductions in the energy use of new homes and commercial structures through a nationwide building energy code. Those 29 pages, aka Section 201, or “Greater Energy Efficiency in Building Codes,” are the most important part of the bill, according to Edward Mazria, founder of the Sante Fe, N.M.-based research and advocacy group Architecture 2030. “[A]ll other energy and emissions reduction approaches pale in comparison to what Section 201 will accomplish,” Mazria wrote in a commentary distributed via email last week. “Without it, we simply cannot meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets called for in the bill.”

Of course it’s unclear if the section will make it to a compromise version of the bill negotiated by the House and Senate, or even if a watered-down version of the legislation itself will make it through to President Obama for signing. But a look at Architecture 2030’s analysis of a nationwide energy code reveals the massive impact this policy could have on the country’s emissions and energy use.

The legislation would mark an important shift, requiring all states to meet minimum building energy standards. Currently, nine U.S. states, including Arizona and Alabama, have no statewide energy codes for commercial buildings, and 11 states, including Illinois and Maine, lack statewide residential energy codes (cities within the states, however, may have their own rules). Those states with codes generally include requirements for energy efficiency through building shell design and mechanical and lighting systems.


Section 201 would require all states to adopt laws by 2010 that are at least 30 percent more stringent than two leading baseline energy codes, the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineer’s 90.1-2004 standard. The Waxman-Markey bill would require states to embrace energy codes that are 50 percent more strict than the baseline by 2015, with an additional 5 percent reduction every three years until 2030.

The impact? Implementing these targets would reduce the building sector’s energy use by 18.7 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 40.4 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, with roughly similar declines in greenhouse gas emissions, according to Architecture 2030. Since homes and commercial buildings account for about 40 percent of total U.S. energy demand, these reductions would significantly advance the overall goals of reducing fossil fuel consumption and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The benefits, however, would come at a cost to consumers because green buildings require tighter shells, more insulation, energy-efficient lighting and more, which tend to carry higher price tags than less efficient alternatives. But energy-saving measures generally pay for themselves quickly, and thereafter save building occupants money in the long ru. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that meeting a 30 percent residential energy use reduction below current codes would save households across the country between $403 and $612 per year after the cost of these measures was factored in. Architecture 2030 estimates that Section 201 would eliminate the need for U.S. power plants to crank out 18.35 quadrillion Btus of energy by 2030, saving consumers more than $200 billion in annual energy bills, although that amount doesn’t appear to include the added costs of energy-savings construction.

But there are other benefits of a nationwide energy code. A consistent standard would reduce confusion for builders and designers crossing state lines to do work; would make information dissemination easier for building professionals and consumers; and would lead to economies of scale for green building material producers, energy modeling software designers, and others focused on providing products and services to the building industry. Waxman-Markey may or may not become law, but the push for a nationwide energy code will likely just intensify.

Image courtesy of NREL.